Is Starck Raving Mad? Introducing ‘Lifestyle Dining’

With its bare brick walls, long black communal tables and heavy, carved oak chairs, the dining hall of Ian Schrager’s new hotel looks like a refectory for Trappist monks. But judging by the roar that greets you when you arrive, it’s for monks who have broken their vow of silence.

Hudson Cafeteria is one of the most bizarre restaurants I’ve ever been to. But that’s not to say it isn’t fun–once you get past the velvet rope and the crowd milling about in the street, as in the days of Mr. Schrager’s Studio 54. You are whisked up a yellow tube via escalator and deposited in a lobby featuring a glass roof covered with tiny leaves and an Ingo Maurer chandelier lit by holograms of light bulbs where the candles should be. To the right is a bustling bar with a chartreuse floor illuminated from beneath and a low ceiling painted by Francesco Clemente. Perhaps it’s the yellow lighting and the black silhouettes of the people, but it looks like Blake’s vision of the ninth circle of hell.

The restaurant is owned by Jeffrey Chodorow of China Grill, Asia de Cuba and Alain Ducasse’s Spoon at Sanderson in London. According to the press release, Hudson Cafeteria represents “the next generation of Lifestyle Dining.” The room’s centerpiece is an open kitchen surrounded by a dining counter over which hang stained-glass pictures of the backs of people’s heads emerging from flames. It’s just the place for a Black Mass. I’m not sure exactly what “Lifestyle Dining” means, though one suspects it has something to do with the fact that Philippe Starck designed the space. I imagine the concept includes loud music so that conversation has to be conducted by shouting. It also means that the cuisine (much of it similar to that of Mr. Ducasse’s Spoon, slated to replace “44″ in the Royalton) is eclectic, international and tongue-in-cheek, from turkey meat loaf to chop suey and cassoulet.

Hudson Cafeteria draws a chic crowd of all ages. One day a parade of women in Yamamoto swanned past, each pushing a stroller. They looked like the opening number in a Pina Bausch ballet. Another evening, two young men, were already having dinner at our table when we sat down. We ordered a bottle of red Sancerre and waited while they finished their first course. They were halfway through their entrées by the time our bottle arrived. I have nothing against drinking wine from a tumbler, but Jacques Tati could not have improved upon this little vignette: The sommelier presented the cork for us to sniff with a flourish and then carefully poured a few drops into a thick dime-store glass as though decanting a precious vintage into a Reidel ballon .

Perhaps it’s because the service is so ditzy, but Hudson Cafeteria feels just a little suburban despite its witty decor. Sure, the busboys wear black Mao jackets and the wait staff is dressed in white shirts and black ties, but they aren’t the sultry Calvin Klein types you’ve come to expect in Mr. Schrager’s hotels. It’s as though he chose to dumb down and go for perky this time. At lunch one sunny afternoon, a friend was blinded by the glare coming in from the 20-foot windows. We asked a waiter to adjust the blinds. “I’m sorry, but Mr. Starck has given strict instructions that the blinds must be kept horizontal.” By the time our food arrived, my friend was wiping her sun-scorched eyes, so I tried my luck with a waitress. “I will totally see that they fix that blind for you,” she said.

But Mr. Starck totally didn’t want that.

She came back a few minutes later, shaking her head. “I feel totally bad.”

The quality of the food was as haphazard as the choice of dishes on the menu. We got off to a very good start with buttermilk fried oysters: soft and briny inside a crunchy cornmeal crust, served with a lemony carrot salad and Cajun rémoulade sauce. A Vietnamese wrap made with rock shrimp and lettuce and served with three gutsy dipping sauces–spicy pepper, sweet soy and peanut–was also a winner. Smoky grilled duck and green peppercorn sausage were perfectly matched with apple slices and soft polenta cake.

Alas, other dishes reflected the quality implicit in the restaurant’s name. Some were so underseasoned it was like eating in a salt-free restaurant. The ceviche was bland and rubbery. If you’re going to serve macaroni and cheese in a place called Cafeteria, it had better be great. But this rendition, which we ordered topped with a nice, buttery slab of foie gras for sheer down-home decadence, had no taste whatsoever.

Tender braised lamb shank was cooked to a mahogany sheen. It arrived on a bed of salt-free tomato risotto that was so undercooked it was gritty. However sodium-shy it may be, the kitchen is mercifully bold when it comes to chilies. There was nothing wrong with the searingly hot shrimp curry, its fieriness diluted with yellow split peas and rice. Thai hot-and-sour seafood soup had a sharp taste of chilies, but the broth was flat.

Steak tartare, viewed under the low strip of light over our table, was an unappetizing gray. Was it the meat, or was Mr. Starck at it again? It tasted fine, but it came with a heap of shoestring fries that were as interesting to eat as a bale of hay. Broiled half-lobster was juicy and sweet, but it was hard to excavate from beneath a mountain of fries.

When we were ready for dessert, I asked our waiter what was in the cappuccino pudding.

“Mind if I sit down?” he asked, squeezing in along the bench. “Cappuccino flavoring,” he replied, as though sharing a confidence. “I don’t know what else.”

I began to wonder if there was something in the water here that was affecting the staff. I pointed out that almond biscotti were listed as part of the dish.

“They’re stuck in it.”

Actually, they were dipped in chocolate and served on the side. The pudding was sickly sweet and so were the biscotti. But the warm apple pie had a good, light crust, and the gooey butterscotch pudding with thin cashew crisps was stellar. The devil’s food chocolate cake was a six-layer tower that keeled over when our waiter set it down.

“What would Philippe Starck say if he saw that?” asked my companion tartly. The waiter stared back blankly.

Meanwhile, our neighbors were paying. “Want to know a good idea for a place like this?” asked one. “Vegas!”

Hudson Cafeteria

*

356 West 58th Street (between Eighth and Ninth avenues)

554-6500

Dress: Black

Noise level: High

Wine list: Eclectic, reasonably priced

Credit cards: All major cards

Price range: Main courses (lunch and dinner) $8.50 to $28.50

Breakfast: 6:30 to 11:30 a.m.

Lunch and dinner: 11:30 to 1 a.m.

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor